A long and hot summer ahead

Union Minister of State for Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar signs the Paris Agreement at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York, on April 22.  

On April 22, representatives from 175 countries >gathered in New York to affix their signatures on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which was adopted by consensus by the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP-21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which met in December 2015.

The scene will now shift to obtaining enough instruments of ratification to bring the agreement into force before 2020, the first year of its proposed implementation. The agreement will enter into force with the ratification of at least 55 countries, whose aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions constitute at least 55 per cent of global emissions. One will need to watch what happens in the United States after the forthcoming presidential elections. There is a real risk that the Kyoto Protocol drama may be repeated with the U.S. Congress rejecting an agreement that the U.S. administration has signed. Were this to happen, other countries may withhold ratification since the U.S. is the second largest emitter of GHGs after China. India should not be in a hurry to ratify the Agreement until there is clarity on the U.S. position.

Still a work in progress

The Paris Agreement represents only a skeletal framework which will now have to be fleshed out in post-Paris negotiations. Several major concepts and provisions were deliberately left ambiguous and open to differing interpretations in order to reach consensus. Further negotiations are necessary to reach a common understanding to enable implementation. For example, take the concept of “transparency”. Developed countries claim that transparency requires a “common and unified system” to compare climate action undertaken as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) by Parties. The Expert Review Teams (ERTs) under the UNFCCC currently evaluate the achievement of quantitative reductions in GHGs by developed countries only. There are demands that this should be modified to enable a common template to review national GHG emissions and removal (by carbon sinks) data for all countries after 2020. Developing countries, on the other hand, point to the “flexibilities” available to them in recognition of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” (the well-known CBDR principle) and insist that this should be reflected in the application of the transparency provision.

The Paris Agreement provides for a five-yearly “stocktake” which would enable an estimation of how much progress is being made in the implementation of the various contributions pledged by Parties in respect not only of mitigation but also adaptation, finance, technology transfer and capacity building. How each of these contributions will be measured and evaluated still needs to be worked out. This will be both a political and technical challenge. Developed countries want to make the mitigation aspect specific and measurable while keeping other aspects such as finance and technology transfer to developing countries as indeterminate as possible so as not to be held accountable for what they have pledged in these areas. For example, the UNFCCC Secretariat has already opened what it calls a “public registry” for NDCs ahead of negotiations which may, by default, create a common reporting framework, pre-empting negotiations among Parties. Developing countries should question the rationale for such a registry ahead of a negotiated outcome on this issue.

At the insistence of the European Union, it was agreed at Paris that there would be a “Facilitation Dialogue” among Parties in 2018 focussed on the adequacy of aggregate NDCs with respect to the 2° Celsius global temperature limit and, even more ambitiously, the 1.5° Celsius limit favoured by the small island developing states. Such a review will inevitably and rightly come to the conclusion that the aggregate mitigation pledges made so far fall far short of the above temperature limits. There will be pressure on major emerging economies, including India, to take on more ambitious mitigation commitments since the developed economies, though major emitters, are progressively reducing their emissions while the developing countries are still on a rising though diminishing trajectory.

India in the cross hairs

Since India, along with other developing countries, agreed to drop the key principle of “historical responsibility” enshrined in the UNFCCC from the Paris Agreement, the responsibility of the developed industrialised countries for the largest proportion of GHG emissions accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere, and which is what is responsible for global warming, will be ignored in comparing mitigation contributions. Only current emissions will be the basis for this exercise. The principles of equity and CBDR are easier to operationalise with the acknowledgement of historical responsibility, for the simple reason that the responsibility of each country to the accumulated GHG stock is as measurable as are current emissions. Which country is occupying how much of the available carbon budget consistent with any specific temperature rise limit can be calculated with reasonable accuracy. These measures can be used to evaluate whether equity is being translated into practice in terms of climate actions by different Parties. With the concept of carbon budget out of the way, it is current emissions alone which will become the focus in the new climate change regime and create inevitable pressures on India for enhanced mitigation pledges — as we saw in Paris itself. India, for its energy security, will continue to rely on coal to generate power for its growing economy for the foreseeable future. This is already being projected as being contrary to the spirit of the Paris Agreement irrespective of the fact that several developed countries including the U.S. and Japan and among emerging economies, China, already use far more coal than India for their power generation. That is ignored because there is an incremental decline even though from a very high base in their case, while India is in the cross hairs because there is an incremental increase but from a much lower base. This, too, is a classic “stock versus flow” problem, where focussing only on the latter completely distorts the picture.


While trying to impose specific and onerous commitments on developing countries, the developed countries continue to evade providing any clarity on what they intend to contribute by way of finance, technology and capacity building to fulfil their Paris Agreement pledges. On finance there has been backsliding. There is a commitment, going back to the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, that $100 billion of finance a year will be available by 2020 to support climate action by developing countries. In Paris, it was agreed that no increase will be expected over this figure until 2025, five years into the implementation of the agreement. When the agreement talks of “financial flows” rather than public resources in the form of official transfers, it is not clear what would be the constituents of these flows and the value assigned to each.

On technology transfer, there is already an offensive by the U.S. corporate sector to ensure that in the post-Paris negotiations there is no concession on intellectual property (IP) issues. The U.S. lobby has objected to the UN High Level Panel on Access to Medicines, which is considering how the IP issue may be dealt with, balancing the interests of different stakeholders to ensure equitable access to medicines, in particular for the poor and deprived. In a communication to the U.S. administration, these American companies have said that “significant challenges to IP remain in the Paris Agreement’s implementation and subsequent negotiations — especially those related to the technology development and transfer chapter”.

India has already made substantial concessions to enable a consensus and successful outcome at Paris. Now it must ensure that it is not caught in a relentless attrition process where each concession becomes an argument for making the next one. The post-Paris negotiations will determine more precisely the shape of the climate change architecture for the next several decades. We must ensure that India’s vital interests are safeguarded and the principle of equity and equitable burden-sharing is reflected across this architecture. There lies a long and hot summer ahead.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Climate Change (2006-09). He is currently Chairman, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS), and Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

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